Kong: Skull Island movie review: ape-ocalypse now

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Kong Skull Island green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Boiled down to its bonkers essence, Skull Island is a Vietnam war movie with monsters, a retro analog vibe, and a dash of both Moby-Dick and The X-Files.
I’m “biast” (pro): love a good monster movie; love the cast
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

What’s the big surprise of Kong: Skull Island? No, it’s not a secret sequel to Peter Jackson’s 2005 film King Kong; the two movies are not connected in any way. And no, in fact, this Kong is not a sequel to 2014’s Godzilla, either, though the two are both part of the shared universe that’s being called the MonsterVerse; coming soon: Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 2019 and Godzilla vs. Kong in 2020 2021.

Surprise! This isn’t a sequel to 2014’s Godzilla.

No, the big surprise — and it’s not a spoiler because this fact is instantly obvious from the opening moments of Kong: Skull Island — is that this is actually a prequel to Godzilla. After a brief introductory sequence set in 1944, the action jumps to 1973 and stays there. Which lends a delicious retro analog vibe to the goings-on, despite all the the CGI. (The FX are pretty seamless, and suspending disbelief is not at all an issue here, but to the great disappointment of our geeky little hearts, our heads know that monsters aren’t real.) There are really good practical storytelling reasons to keep our latest high-tech toys out of the hands of the people here, and good reasons that create suspense and intrigue and that aid character development. But mostly it simply allows the film to harness a feeling that isn’t quite nostalgia; to these people, all their gadgets are supermodern and you know they think they are the shit hoisting field phones the size of bricks up to their ears, and lugging around portable turntables for their traveling vinyl. Maybe it’s that their sense of their own coolness infects us even as we snort a little at their tech.

(Also worth mentioning with the 70s setting: this movie bears no resemblance to the deeply terrible 1976 King Kong. Thank goodness.)

“Flight of the Valkyries” isn’t playing on the soundtrack at this moment, but it could be...
“Flight of the Valkyries” isn’t playing on the soundtrack at this moment, but it could be…

A good reason to set this tale in 1973: It allows for mysterious Skull Island to have been recently discovered in the South Pacific by the first Earth-mapping satellites, even though it is hidden by a perpetual storm system. Scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman: Patriots Day, Ratchet & Clank) finally gets permission to take his team (Tian Jing [The Great Wall] and Corey Hawkins [Straight Outta Compton, Non-Stop]) on a mission to the island to find out what’s there… and he has a pretty good idea what’s there via his top-secret government project, Monarch (referenced in Godzilla), which is trying to document the existence of “massive unidentified terrestrial organisms.” (It’s like an X-Files for monsters.) So off they go accompanied by “tracker” and black-ops vet James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston: Crimson Peak, High-Rise), photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson: Room, Trainwreck), and an escort of US military who are about to be demobilized from Vietnam. Once on the island, they meet Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly: Sing, Guardians of the Galaxy), who was shot down over the island in 1944 (that’s the opening sequence) and has been stuck there since.

Skull Island: Come for the giant angry ape...
Skull Island: Come for the giant angry ape…
...stay for the ravenous dino freak beasts out of your nightmares.
…stay for the ravenous dino freak beasts out of your nightmares.

Boiled down to its bonkers essence, Skull Island is a Vietnam war movie with monsters. (Kong is far from the only one.) It’s Ape-ocalypse Now, with a war-addicted, possibly insane Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, The Legend of Tarzan), who is quite upset about the whole not-winning in Vietnam thing, going full Ahab and fixating on Kong as a “war” he can win. (He might be overestimating the capabilities of his squad.) So while Skull Island has ironic fun with a running motif about how war can make a man see enemies everywhere, including in a giant ape that was just minding his own business until you started dropping bombs on him, there’s also a man-versus-nature thing running alongside it: mess with nature, and nature will mess right back, ferociously. (Sample dialogue, almost verbatim: “What the hell is that?!” “I don’t know!” “Let’s kill it!”) It’s like Jurassic Park with a lot less wonder and a lot more horror. Oh, the gruesome, intense ickiness here! This movie is really pushing the boundaries of a PG-13 rating… or maybe it only feels that way when you’re watching in 3D IMAX and it feels like the jungle bug slime and the gore and the monster vomit is all over you. (That’s right: I said “monster vomit.”) This is a rare instance of 3D being put to actual use onscreen rather than just serving as an excuse to hike ticket prices: there is real depth in the jungle, real dizziness to be found looking down from a high cliff. Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose only previous feature film is the unpleasantly snide ultra-low-budget coming-of-age dramedy The Kings of Summer, has acquitted himself well with his first massive FX movie. (The screenplay is by Dan Gilroy [Nightcrawler, The Bourne Legacy], Max Borenstein [Godzilla], Derek Connolly [Monster Trucks, Jurassic World], and John Gatins [Need for Speed, Flight].)

Sample dialogue, almost verbatim: “What the hell is that?!” “I don’t know!” “Let’s kill it!”

All the horror and the black comedy and the monster battles and the homages to a slew of other films: it all works, even crammed in like this, thanks in large part to the fine line the terrific cast walks between treating it with just enough taking-it-seriously under the lashings of nonsense. Reilly steals the show as the lost-in-time pilot, but Hiddleston is a close second, plausibly rougher and tougher than we’ve seen him before in his first true action role (Loki doesn’t count; he mostly just stands around scheming and looking evil). Larson’s role could be meatier, but she is not a damsel in distress, and she is not there for Kong to inexplicably fall in love with. (In fact, the most offensive Kong tropes have been excised, though they are alluded to.) One or two groans are necessary in response to an obvious choice or two on the soundtrack of mostly awesome 70s rock tunes, but that’s not much to complain about when so much could have gone badly wrong here. I would have said, after Peter Jackson’s Kong, that he didn’t need another reboot. But I’m glad we got this one: it’s a helluva lotta fun.

IMPORTANT NERD NOTES: Not only is there a post-credits scene you won’t want to miss, but also be on the lookout for a new Kong-themed IMAX promo before the film… you know, the one that invites you to “watch a movie, or be a part of one.”

see also:
Godzilla movie review: sympathy for Gojira
Godzilla: King of the Monsters movie review: gives new meaning to the phrase “disaster movie”
Godzilla vs. Kong movie review: whole earth monster catalog (#HBO)

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Mon, Mar 06, 2017 10:47pm

The opening sequence was set in 1945. Hank mentions that he’s been in the country for 28 years but no one listens to him.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  FSugino
Tue, Mar 07, 2017 11:05am

I’m 99 percent sure it’s 1944. Hank says something about 28 years and X months.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Fri, Mar 10, 2017 3:17am

Just saw it again and you’re right; the dogfight is in 1944. What threw me was the opening title sequence that started with “1945” on the screen.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  FSugino
Mon, Mar 13, 2017 6:26pm

Does it say “1945,” though? I would swear it says “1944.”

Well, I was probably gonna see the movie again anyway…

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Mar 13, 2017 9:13pm

Yes, the movie (with the sounds of the two planes in a dogfight) starts with “1944” on the screen. After Kong makes his appearance, the movie stars showing newsreel footage and displays the years going by. The newsreel stuff starts with “1945” – which was the first date that I recalled seeing on screen. But upon subsequent viewings, I saw that I missed the 1944 that shows up at the start.

geli menyakitkan
geli menyakitkan
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sun, Apr 23, 2017 10:47am


Adeline L. Laughlin
Adeline L. Laughlin
reply to  FSugino
Sat, May 13, 2017 8:26pm

Get Kong:Skull Island HD Quality 4K

Tonio Kruger
Fri, Mar 10, 2017 5:20am

Larson’s role could be meatier, but she is not a damsel in distress, and she is not there for Kong to inexplicably fall in love with. (In fact, the most offensive Kong tropes have been excised, though they are alluded to.)

Would not a Kong movie without those tropes be little more than a remake of Mighty Joe Young? Or am I missing something here?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Tonio Kruger
Mon, Mar 13, 2017 6:27pm

Are you saying that an ape being sexually attracted to a human is intrinsic and essential to the Kong story?

Allen W
Allen W
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Wed, Mar 15, 2017 3:06am

I loved Skull Island, but now that you mention it: Yeah, it kinda is. “It was Beauty killed the Beast.” This is the first Kong movie that lacks that theme (if you don’t count “King Kong​ vs. Godzilla”; and even there, his inexplicable attraction to the hero’s girlfriend ends up getting him sedated and restrained).
Oops! I just remembered the existence of “King Kong Lives” (1986), where Kong is instead doomed by his attraction to another giant gorilla. In all fairness, though, I think everyone​ involved would prefer to ignore that one. ;)

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Thu, Nov 30, 2017 6:59pm

Considering the fact that my first encounter with a King Kong story involved a Saturday morning cartoon series about a giant ape and a small boy, I certainly hope not.

Edited to Add: Er, I should have remembered that show before I asked my question. My bad.

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
Mon, Dec 04, 2017 7:58pm

I’m surprised to admit this but this movie was actually pretty good. Considering how much publicity previous King Kong movies have received, I’m surprised it got as little media attention as it did.

For that matter, I’m surprised that director Guillermo Del Toro has nothing to do with the would-be sequel since the subject matter seems like his type of subject matter.